TBASS

Labli was woken up by the dawn chorus. It was hard not to smile at the chirping of the sweet birds. She grabbed her long scarf from the foot of the bed and threw it over her head. Brushing back a loose strand of black hair from her forehead, she opened the door quietly so as not to disturb her younger brother, Joynal. He still had a few hours of sleep before waking up to go to school.The door squeaked as she pulled it shut behind her.

Labli looked down at her red shalwar kameez and tried to brush out the creases. It didn’t look as rumpled as it had before. Anyway, it would have to do; her only other set was still drying in the kitchen after yesterday’s thunderstorm.

As she felt her way along the cold, dark hallway, she noticed her parents’ bedroom door was ajar. Her mother was stirring on the bed; her father’s place was empty. Labli unlocked the front door and made her way to the tube well at the bottom of the veranda steps. The air was crisp and cool. Doel birds flapped overhead and one landed in one of the betel palm trees, lifting its white tail as it whistled. The Adhan, the call to prayer, blared out over the masjid’s loudspeakers. She filled up a plastic jug with water and made ablution. After praying the four units of the dawn prayer, she collected firewood from around the courtyard and milked the cow. She had just lit the fire when her mother walked into the kitchen.

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The Assassinations

The evening sky had deadened to the colour of cigarette ash by the time Jaswant left his office. On his way home, he passed cars and buses on fire, burnt shells of shops and houses billowing smoke, dead bodies of Sikhs cremated alive, bands of goondas brandishing machetes and crowbars… It was as if Partition had descended one more time. The stench of fire and smoke, the hapless victims and their remorseless tormentors, even the mob’s war cry of khoon kabadlakhoon. Everything was the same, right down to the dread rising from his soul.

He could feel the goondas’ eyes probing the car as it went past. They were stopping cars at random to check if there were Sikhs inside. Many times they’d tell the driver to open the boot to make sure no Sikhs were being smuggled to safety. But they made no move to impede his progress. That he was in a government car kept them at bay. That and the fact neither he nor his driver appeared to be a Sikh.

No sooner had they entered the posh southern part of Delhi than the goondas melted away. The stench of fire and smoke receded. The burnt bodies and buildings disappeared…instead, there were shuttered shops and deserted streets and empty pavements…. Even the dogs were not barking. It was as if someone had thrown a blanket of silence over the entire place. The silence resounded louder than all the mayhem Jaswant had witnessed. It spoke of fear and apathy.

Even though it was still evening, the first thing he did after reaching home was lock his front gate. Deepa, Savitri and Rakesh were waiting for him in the drawing room. Deepa’s face was wan, her eyes puffy. She had been crying since getting home from Rakesh’s school. Rakesh was hunched in a chair. Normally, it was hard for him to sit still. But that day he looked as if all life had been sucked out of him.

Savitri told him about the attack on the Sikh they witnessed while returning from Rakesh’s school. The sheer brutality of the assault took Jaswant unawares, despite what he had seen on his way home. When Savitri came to the part where the Sikh’s assailant shoved locks of his hair into his mouth, Jaswant recoiled. It was several seconds before he could find his voice.

He told them that he had no news of Prem. He had contacted one of his friends who was a superintendent in the Home Guards and stationed less than ten kilometres from Trilokpuri. His friend had promised to call him with information in the morning.

Deepa, who was dying for news of Prem, erupted. “He said that and you accepted it?” she shouted. “You didn’t tell him to send a man there at once? You didn’t tell him that this is your future son-in-law?”

Her voice collapsed as she finished. She leapt up from the sofa to half-run, half-stumble in the direction of her room. Savitri went after her. Jaswant dropped into the sofa. It pained him to see Deepa so upset. He wished he had better news.

“Will everything be all right, Daddy?” Rakesh asked.

His voice betrayed how much he was struggling to make sense of what was going on. It was as if they had gone back in time and Rakesh was a little boy all over again. A lump grew in Jaswant’s throat. He went over to embrace Rakesh. “Don’t worry, beta, everything will be all right,” he told him. “Now go put your mind elsewhere.”

There was a short pause before Rakesh nodded and left for his room. Jaswant slumped on the sofa, wishing he could feel some of the conviction with which he had assured Rakesh that things would work out.

His friend in the Home Guards had sent a man to Irfan’s flat. That man got nowhere near the flat. Instead, he came back with news of a neighbourhood under siege. An army of goondaswas running wild in Trilokpuri. They had cut all the telephone wires and blocked the way out with a huge concrete pipe. Near the pipe, there was a car all smashed up. From the description, it appeared to be Prem’s. There was no sign of Prem; so there was a chance that he had survived. But it didn’t appear likely, given the evidence on hand.

He hadn’t been able to look into Deepa’s teary eyes and tell her the man she loved was probably dead. On the phone with Amarjeet, he had found himself just as powerless. So he had lied to both of them, saying his friend would call with news in the morning.

What was worse? The hammer blow of tragedy or the torture of not knowing?

As far as he could tell, there wasn’t much to choose.

It was almost morning before Deepa gave in to sleep and Savitri could leave her room. She plodded, heavy-footed, through the house. Although she had been up all night and was aching everywhere, she had no wish to go to bed.

Jaswant was still fast asleep on the drawing room sofa. She had found him sitting there last night when she came out of Deepa’s room to get her a glass of water. He had wanted to come speak to Deepa. She had talked him out of it. It would be hard for him to deal with her, given the mood she was in. Evidently, he had stayed where she left him, until fatigue got the better of him. Because of Deepa, she hadn’t been able to speak to him last night. She wondered whether she should wake him up. She decided against it. Before that she needed a few moments to herself.

in the time of others

From Chapter 17

The soldiers formed a firing squad on Shaukat’s order, waited for the officer to be clear of the scene as they had been ordered, and emptied their rifles into the prisoners.

 ‘Sir? Wasn’t this night a complete waste?’

 Shahbaz had been watching the soldiers dump the bodies into the river. The ones from inside were brought out and also thrown in.

‘Fifteen Muktis a waste?’ Shahbaz said. ‘Nights like this are what we need.’

‘I understand, sir, but – ’

‘You want to keep telling what’s better and what’s not?’ Shahbaz’s head turned slowly.

‘No sir, of course not.’

‘Did you know that in a nuclear holocaust the only living survivors would be cockroaches?’

‘I didn’t know this, sir.’

‘It’s true. The determined, nasty little bastards will survive it all. That’s what these Muktis are. That’s what their race is. They’re nasty little bastards, meant to be crushed, but you can’t get rid of them if you think they’ll just go away, disappear, die on their own. The only good thing is that these Bengalis are flesh and blood humans, and those we can get rid of.’

Shaukat allowed the convoluted analogy to sink in. Offered a cigarette, he accepted it with a quick glance at Shahbaz. Shahbaz’s attention was still pinned on the soldiers’ activities. Shaukat lit his cigarette and felt the wave of the momentary release wash over him.

Paradise at War

The Siege of Hazratbal

In April 1993, the same month Prime Minister Sharif promised Prime Minister Rao that Yakub Memon would be extradited to India, the valley was rocked by a JKLF occupation of Hazratbal, a delicately beautiful Shia shrine built in white marble, rising from the banks that separate the majestic Dal and dreamy Nigeen Lakes. Hazratbal was the most popular shrine in Kashmir, a place that Sunnis also worshipped at and that Sheikh Abdullah had made a centre of his political mobilization. The JKLF controlled the streets and outlying areas of the Hazratbal area and had gradually moved to occupy the shrine and adjoining buildings in the Hazratbal complex. The Indian Army cordoned off the mosque and, after negotiations led by Rajesh Pilot, then minister of state for Home Affairs, the guerrillas accepted safe passage in return for vacating Hazratbal.

The Indian Army protested the offer of safe passage. A siege of the mosque, they argued, would force the guerrillas to surrender and be arrested. But the Rao administration, through Pilot, was committed to restart backchannel talks with the JKLF that started under Governor Saxena and continued under his successor. Rao had just taken office when the April occupation took place. On the JKLF side, Hamid Sheikh, who was imprisoned with Yasin Malik, was principal messenger in the backchannel. Released in 1992 in the hope that he would persuade the JKLF to enter a peace process, he ended up rejoining one of its militias and was shot by the BSF in November, along with a group of guerrillas who were trying to cross the Jhelum to flee across the Line of Control. The Hizbul Mujahideen, security sources added, set up death squads after Sheikh’s release to ensure peace negotiations would fail. In April 1993, the Hizbul guerrilla Zulqarnain murdered Abdul Ahad Guru, a doctor and JKLF mentor, who negotiated the releases of Congress leader Saifuddin Soz’s daughter, Naheed, and Indian Oil executive director, K. Doraiswamy, in 1991. Though it was a Hizbul guerrilla who killed Guru, the police colluded in his killing, according to Habibullah. Guru presented ‘a reasonable face of separatism’ and was widely respected, so he was a counter-insurgency target. Zulqarnain was killed in a security operation soon after. Frustration in the security forces grew in the months to follow. In Sopore, the aftermath of the market firing saw growing support for insurgency. Reports of guerrillas massing in the town began to flow from May 1993, but the state and union governments did not react. ‘Intelligence and others urged decisive and early action’, wrote Arun Shourie, editor of the Indian Express. ‘Nothing was done. By September, about 600 [of the guerrillas] were reported not only to be there, they were reported to have entrenched themselves in bunkers dug out in some houses at various points in the town. Minimal action in May–June would have seen the end of them. By September, a Blue Star-type operation alone would have sufficed. And intelligence was warning that if that sort of action was not launched immediately, and the snow were allowed to set in, the mercenaries would get another four to five months to fortify their presence. What sort of an operation would be necessary then?’

PATNA BLUES

SIX

During the month of September, Arif shut himself in his tiny study room, spending all his waking hours preparing for the mains. The previous month Amma had made Abba buy two large cylindrical steel containers to store grains, and these were then placed in the corridor outside his study room. A mason had been deployed to cut through the brick wall and construct a window that opened into the backyard. Amma had also got the study room whitewashed and the table and chair had been given a new coat of polish.

‘My son needs privacy to prepare for a prestigious and difficult exam like this,’ Arif had heard her saying to Abba.

He stopped going over to Mritunjay’s place, fearing he might run into Sumitra. He knew that if she was around, he would not be able to stay away from her. Whenever Mritunjay complained about his reduced visits, Arif invented new excuses.

But Sumitra kept popping up in his mind. The scene from that rainy night played in his mind continuously. Whenever he conjured up the moment she had embraced him, he got goosebumps. At times he also recalled Simran, his childhood crush from Darbhanga, and felt nostalgic. He convinced himself that Sumitra would vanish from his memories the way Simran had.

October finally arrived and Arif felt that he had performed exceptionally well in the exam. He was sure to get an interview call. The very next day he went to Ashok Rajpath and bought the books required to prep for the interview. He also created detailed notes on his personal and academic backgrounds, the areas he would be questioned on during the interview.

‘A part of our ancestral house in Jamalpura has collapsed in the rain. One of the walls requires immediate repair. I want you to go there and oversee the construction,’ Abba told Arif.

Arif was eager to leave for Jamalpura instantly. This way he would be away from Sumitra. He also wanted to test Zakir’s hypothesis – maybe staying away from her would help him forget her. He would also be able to concentrate on his studies. His ultimate dream to join the civil services was just one hurdle away and he couldn’t mess up all his hard work and his family’s dreams now.

‘See, Arif, you are close to your goal. In Jamalpura, you’ll have a comfortable space to study for the interview. Here, the continuous footfall of guests will distract you,’ Abba said. ‘Sometimes I feel guilty for not sending you to a good coaching institute like Mritunjay’s father did,’ he added with a heavy sigh.

‘Don’t say that, Abba. You have been a wonderful father.’

#

The bus crossed Gandhi Setu over the majestic Ganga and entered Hajipur. It turned and speeded towards Muzaff arpur. Between Muzaff arpur and Hajipur, there was no road, only a long stretch of potholes and cobbled paths. The bus jerked like a horse cart. A bespectacled old gentleman cursed the chief minister of Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, for the condition of the roads and ridiculed Yadav for claiming that he would make Bihar’s roads as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks.

Muslims

A CLASH OF VIEWS

The status and role of women is an issue which affects every Muslim home. When The Prophet and his group arrived in Medina they noted the different behaviour of the Medina women. Umar, the champion of male privilege, commented, ‘We men of Quraysh dominate our women. When we arrived in Medina, we saw that the Ansar let themselves be dominated by theirs. Then our women began to copy their habits.’ One day when he was railing at his wife, she answered him in the same tone of voice. When he expressed his shock and disappointment, she replied, ‘You reproach me for answering you! Well, by God, the wives of The Prophet answer him.’ It did not help that the two most influential leaders of early Islam, The Prophet and his most powerful and admired lieutenant, Umar, had very different views on women and how they should be treated.

After the wedding feast on the marriage of The Prophet and Zainab, the guests stayed too long and didn’t leave. This led to the Quranic verses instituting seclusion,

Title: Eucalyptus Sextet
Author: Jane Bhandari
Publisher: Bombaykala Books (November 2018)
Pages: 96

 

Eucalyptus Sextet

The Itch

I sipped love from your lips
and warmed my soul against your body,
then left you sleeping
while I wrote of love.
The best was that morning
flavoured with delight:
After a night
spent drinking your body
I arose to write it down
before I lost the savour
and you slept, not knowing
I had turned satisfaction
into a number of words.
If I had known
you would go so soon
I would have left writing
till later: but what I had
was an itch
that would not be scratched,
and still I write of it.

 

Comfort Chores

Something comforting in the routine
of domesticity: The way
one chore follows upon another:
The clothes to be ironed
the plates to be washed
the food to be cooked.
Shower, dress, and wait
for the telephone to ring.
A little music, the television
blaring inane laughter.
The sun shines steadily.
I go to the bank, the market,
meet a friend, read a book…
such a comfortable routine
to settle back into,
so boring, so alone.

“I am indebted to the British poet, actor, and soldier James Milton Hayes, whose poem ‘The Green Eyes of a Yellow Little God’ with its opening line ‘There is a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu’ fired my imagination to name this collection of poems The Eight-eyed Lord of Kathmandu. Hayes wrote his immortal dramatic monologue over a century ago in 1911 just in five hours. Incidentally, he did not consider it as poetry. Following the footsteps of Hayes, a century later, I have made a humble attempt to draw a poetic portrait of Nepal through my poems on World Heritage sites, festivals, places, landscapes, historical personalities as well as its present inhabitants. My time spent in Nepal from July 2012 to January 2016 was full of bliss, learning and adventure.”
ABHAY K

The Eight-Eyed Lord of Kathmandu

 

Sherpa

I lead the way to Mt. Everest, paving the path through snow
and ice, fearless of losing fingers to frostbite.

Conquering Everest your face glows like a field of poppies.

Descending the mountain my feverish body breaks.

Your weight on my back. A few dollars in my hand.